POST 12 – 23-04-2014

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Butchart Gardens. Vancouver Island. British Columbia. Canada. August 2013.



A dictionary definition of meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, traditions, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

Unfortunately the term meme has been trivialised in its use on the internet with things like meme factory and meme generator. An Internet meme may take the form of an image, hyperlink, video, picture, website, or hashtag. It may be just a word or phrase, including an intentional misspelling. These small movements tend to spread from person to person via social networks, blogs, direct email, or news sources.

The word is sometimes used to include clusters of memes, or memeplexes such as cultural or political doctrines and systems. Memeplexes comprise groups of memes that replicate together and co-adapt. Memes that fit within a successful memeplex may gain acceptance by “piggybacking” on the success of the memeplex. An example is the transmission, mutation and selection of religious memeplexes and the theistic memes contained therein. Theistic memes include the “prohibition of aberrant sexual practices such as incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, castration, and religious prostitution”, which may have increased the vertical transmission of the parent religious memeplex. Similar memes are thereby included in the majority of religious memeplexes, and harden over time; they become an “inviolable canon” or set of dogmas, eventually finding their way into secular law. This could also be referred to as the propagation of conventions, traditions or taboos.

Examples of memeplexes also include sets of memes like singing and guitar playing, or the Christmas tree and Christmas dinner.

Let’s consider some examples of “idea, behaviour or style” that have resulted in changes in societal (cultural) attitudes in recent times and consider the speed and effectiveness with which some of these things have happened. There are some memes that are merely fads, fashions or examples of middle class self-gratification but I will list some important examples to illustrate the life history of memes.

The speed of change in memes may be related to:

Replication – rate of reproduction

Variation – prevalence of error

Competition – pressure for survival

Then consider how the process may develop under either “natural” or “artificial” conditions. Remembering from earlier discussion that “natural” implies that the process will continue whether humans intervene or not and “artificial” may be the result of either “unintended” or “intentional” intervention.

Some examples of “ideas, symbols, practices, behavior, or style,” that are memes or memeplexes include:

  • Abolition of slavery
  • Abolition of capital punishment
  • Abolition of corporal punishment
  • English Common Law
  • Gay marriage
  • Animal welfare
  • Organic food
  • Environmentalism
  • Climate change
  • Etiquette
  • Vaccination


I will take four examples for brief consideration – abolition of corporal punishment, gay marriage, animal welfare and climate change. You could choose your own favourite example and examine it in relation to the three steps I am proposing as the essential elements of meme spread – replication, variation and competition.

Abolition of corporal punishment.

When I was growing up it was accepted by schools and parents that childish misbehaviour could be remedied by smacking, caning or “the strap”. By the time I was a father that acceptance had changed and both parents and schools had reduced the use of such disciplinary measures. The use of a sharp slap was still accepted for some time but by the time I had grandchildren there was an acceptance that such measures did not work and in fact were counter-productive as the use of corporal punishment was seen as confirmation to the sufferer that might was right and it was OK to hit small or weak people.

It is now the case that both common practice and the law provide that hitting a child is wrong.

Acceptance of gay marriage.

Gay marriage is a case where change occurred within a generation. There is room for different views here but the overreaching element is that people have changed attitudes towards “victimless crimes”.

Changed attitudes to animal welfare.

Animal welfare is an unusual case as we have no evidence that animals actually suffer in the same way that humans suffer but the change in attitudes results from an acceptance that animals can be assumed to suffer as we do.

Climate change.

Climate change is a problem for democracy. The scientific modelling is compelling and the evidence alarming. The problems begin when the science crosses into the democratic sphere of politics and public policy.

The point I am making with these examples is that the Darwinian process goes on whether we recognise it or not. This means that we can influence the outcome in each case by interventions including:

  1. Changing the rate at which the meme is replicated. Increasing the rate exposes the idea to more opportunities for variation to occur. Decreasing the rate tends towards maintaining the status quo – stability.
  2. Changing the incidence of variations (errors) that may affect the eventual outcome. A higher incidence of the occurrence of variations tends towards new outcomes, while a lesser incidence tends towards fewer changes.
  3. Changing the environment into which the meme is released affects the feedback mechanisms influencing survival of the new meme.

Making effort to prevent error is an interference and should be monitored but value judgments are needed and dissecting a memeplex into its component parts may help us to point out the critical elements which need our attention in coming to a value judgement affecting the way we support or oppose a meme’s survival. Some points to remember when deciding on action or intervention in the process:

  • Even if the process or the environment is not modified the process still goes on.
  • Omission and commission are both interventions and have attendant risks.
  • Allowing error to continue is an intervention.
  • Both change aversion and progressive approaches are forms of interventions.
  • Laissez faire is an intervention

In short – the process will go on whatever we do, so we should manipulate these memes to better attend to our human needs and seek to add to human fruitfulness. This is how we contribute to the civilising project. We cannot neglect it. We must act or the process will decay.